In the second episode of Lana Tran’s mission to requestion the “normalcy” of living in Japan, she looks at the wakaba mark, what it symbolizes in Japanese society, and how it helped her take a new step. (Top Pic courtesy of Chelsea Fernando)
If you are as socially clumsy as me, you’ll know the feeling of wanting to slap a sign on yourself that says, “Sorry, I’m new at this.” In Japan, it’s called a wakaba (literally, young leaf) mark, for those new at the wheel. I might as well have had one when I first relocated from Canada and stumbled upon a privy few years in which my cultural ineptitude warranted a free pass through the social protocol.
Six years later, a combination of being passably Asian and having passable Japanese ability means even my coworkers forget that the card in my pocket says Not From Here. Shedding my wakaba might even have been a source of pride, until 2016.
While everyone was (and still is) marching for factions of us and they, I was squinting through a proverbial cardboard tube, sifting through websites on the other side of the Pacific. Trips to the US would obligate souvenir Fuck Trump pins or other protest paraphernalia; dinners with expat friends would inevitably involve strangers accosting them about what side their ballot went to; nearly breaking a sweat, coworkers were bound to ask, “Are you a (pause) feminist?”
Fumbling somewhere between “dazed onlooker” and “budding activist”, I came up against a wall of hesitation: How do I talk about this? As exaggerated as it may be (being the wayward pluralistic soul that I am), I was always inclined and even trained to speak loud and proud. However then, I halted at the realization that all the baggage of identity politics as I had come to know it may be completely out of context in Japan. As it happened, the current political situation was redefining both my worldview and relation to those around me.
The potential salve for my social anxiety came in the form of what I can only describe as a scruffy, somewhat insectile, pink rabbit. This was a member of Tomorrow Girls Troop (https://tomorrowgirlstroop.com/), “the fourth wave feminist social art collective.” Based online and in Japan, the members dawn masks to both make a point and create anonymity. I took a seat at their information table and began to look and listen.
“What’s that for?” I asked, pointing at the wakaba mark pinned to one of the member’s shirts. That member, another explained to me, was a beginner feminist.
There it was: the idea that it’s okay to be new at this, even if this is something as potentially burdensome as coming to terms with your sociopolitical identity. The idea that there exists a free pass to conversation and potentially, humane understanding.
I think I just grew a new leaf.
The wakaba mark on various vehicles. (keijidosha-ranking.com)